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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

 

I’m OK. You’re a rage-a-holic.

But in recent years, another phenomenon has emerged. Some forms of anger are now considered more culturally legitimate than others. As a result, we spend less time examining the sources of people’s anger and more time arguing over which people have the “right” to be angry.

This is especially true with controversial issues. Announcing his recent executive actions on gun control, President Obama wiped away angry tears as he said of the victims of gun violence, “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.” The media swooned; Matt Lauer, of the Today show, praised the president’s “rare display of emotion” and columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted, “We should all be crying about 32,000 American gun deaths a year.” Obama’s angry tears supposedly placed the president above politics, in the realm of the spirit—and elevated those who admired his display of feeling. “I think any of us who sort of covered that story, any time I think about Sandy Hook, you feel that as well,” said Today’s Willie Geist, thus suggesting that professionals who “covered” the shootings at the school in Connecticut simply felt more deeply about it than the rest of us hoi polloi. “It doesn’t mean his policies are going to fix the gun problem, it doesn’t even mean they’re the right thing, I’m just talking about that emotion right there.”

But when people on the other side of the aisle express anger, it’s not emotionally inspiring. It’s scary. “Anger and alienation have been simmering in Republican ranks since the end of the George W. Bush administration,” the New York Times noted recently (and ominously), while failing to note the similar rise in Democratic anger. A recent editorial indulged in a standard bit of outrage-peddling by blaming “years of overheated antigovernment statements by right-wing politicians and media figures” for “outbursts” such as the current standoff between local ranchers and law-enforcement agents at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. Meanwhile, these same observers describe expressions of anger from the left (bullying campus activists, Occupy Wall Street) as righteous manifestations of the fight for justice and treat their excesses like the overenthusiasm of an excitable puppy.

In other words: I’m OK. You’re a rage-a-holic.

It’s an emotional version of what behavioral economists call the “licensing effect.” The term describes a curious human trait: When we do something good, we then give ourselves license to do something bad. One Canadian study found that people who bought environmentally conscious products were more likely later to lie, cheat, and steal, for example. “Purchasing green products may produce the counterintuitive effect of licensing asocial and unethical behaviors by establishing moral credentials,” researchers told CBC News.

Similarly, by pointing out the supposedly irrational and dangerous anger of their political opponents (and thus establishing their “moral credentials”), cultural mandarins of the left can then readily indulge in their own vitriol without ever having to figure out what might be stirring these other people....

There is something both brilliantly instrumental and stunningly condescending about the efforts of the self-appointed cultural and media elite to disqualify the emotions of the majority of Americans. In doing so they suggest not only that their opponents are wrong on the facts, but also that they are irrational, immature, and possibly dangerous, like a child having a tantrum. This makes serious conversation—and useful political debate—impossible. And it makes people very, very angry.

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